Anne B. McGrail
My first encounter with digital humanities (DH) was in the late 1990s at the Poetry Collection at SUNY Buffalo, where I worked writing physical descriptions of primary source documents. The Collection was an early adopter of electronic poetry, and the director beta-tested OCR technology with its James Joyce manuscripts. Access to the library was restricted, and only credentialed scholars could examine the impressive collection of manuscripts housed there. One day, the director came into the workroom to share his excitement that the British Museum was putting its Beowulf manuscript on the World Wide Web. Several of us crowded around the computer to watch as the ancient script lumbered into view, pixel by pixel, and with it, a new era of public access to rare and unpublished cultural artifacts. Such access seemed then to extend the democratic ideal exemplified in the United States by free public libraries. As an aspiring educator, I was thrilled.
Since then, digital humanities has matured, and scholars have rightly questioned the field’s democratic potential, its inclusiveness, and its role in supporting equity. Questions about who is included in what circle, what drives major programs, what kinds of cultural artifacts can be digitized and for what purposes, and whose interests are served by the digital turn are just a few among many as DH practitioners unearth and reassess the field’s adherence to humanistic values.
For me, the public and dynamic conversations taking place around questions of equity comprise the most vital facets of the evolving field. I teach writing and literature at an open-access community college (CC) in Eugene, Oregon. Community college students are some of the most diverse and also most vulnerable student populations in higher education. There are 992 public community colleges in the United States, and community college students make up 46 percent of all undergraduates and 41 percent of all first-time freshmen in the country. Sixty-one percent of Native American college undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges; 52 percent of black students and 43 percent of Asian-Pacific Islander undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges; 50 percent of Hispanic college students begin at community college. In the United States, 59 percent of community college students are enrolled part-time, and 59 percent are women (American Association of Community Colleges, “Enrollments”). The SES data on CC students are well known (Adelman): 44 percent of low-income students attend community colleges as their first college out of high school as compared to 15 percent of high-income students (Community College Research Center). Sixty-nine percent of community college students work, with 33 percent working more than thirty-five hours per week; 22 percent are full-time students employed full-time; 40 percent are full-time students employed part-time; and 41 percent are part-time students employed full-time. And first-generation students make up 36 percent of community college student populations (American Association of Community Colleges, “Fast Fact Sheet”).
In spite of their large numbers, there has been a significant lag in community colleges’ engagement with digital humanities.1 I first noticed this in 2011, when I started searching for like-minded CC colleagues and found very few—in spite of what I observed to be a very open and generous online DH community at four-year colleges, universities, and cultural institutions. Many aspects of DH seemed a perfect fit for the local, open-access missions of community colleges: DH favors a culture of cross-disciplinary collaboration, offers an active maker ethos, and draws on and inculcates multiple literacies and fluencies at once. Given the sheer number of community colleges in the United States and the openness and accessibility of DH scholarship and cultural data, I found this lag puzzling. In my search for answers, I came upon a post by Matthew K. Gold, this volume’s co-editor, who gave voice to some of my concerns at the time:
What is the digital humanities missing when its professional discourse does not include the voices of the institutionally subaltern? How might the inclusion of students, faculty, and staff at such institutions alter the nature of discourse in DH, of the kinds of questions we ask and the kinds of answers we accept? (Gold, “Whose Revolution?”)
Conversely, I asked myself, what are community colleges and their students missing out on in their exclusion from DH discourse, and how might intentional engagement with DH methods and tools help CC students become active agents of discovery and change in their lives? In any developing field, tensions registered in one arena often resonate in others. It is not surprising, then, that the debates about inclusiveness, diversity, and equity at the heart of digital humanities scholarship have found these institutional parallels in the exclusion of community colleges. Perhaps the research-intensive star system that characterizes digital humanities—at least in its initial waves—has been incompatible with the teaching-heavy, service-burdened, “institutionally subaltern” profile of community colleges and their faculty. One could even argue that community college teaching has played a role similar to those “alternative academic” professions for PhDs who aim at tenure-track research careers and miss (Nowviskie).
Like tenure-track positions, community college careers draw on graduate training, but in different ways, and such careers never really feed back into graduate programs’ culture of reputation. Indeed, seen through an R1 institutional lens, community college humanists’ careers are assumed to be dead on arrival. And certainly the succession narratives played out in research circles are interrupted by CC teaching and service loads. But CC faculty careers involve investment elsewhere, in lessvisible but vital local communities of students, some of whose own academic narratives are fraught with interruption. These students’ lives can be unpredictable and complex, often prohibiting participation in the co-curricular activities that deepen the college learning experience and nurture future careers. Solid lines of succession in clubs, study groups, and organizations from year to year—even from semester to semester—are routinely interrupted, eroding the accrual of social and intellectual capital that four-year colleges rely on as a support for undergraduate life. Because of the unevenness of extracurricular engagement, social and intellectual integration in the classroom is one of the most robust predictors of success for community college students.2 Since this kind of integration is often a signature of DH collaboration, digital humanities can offer powerfully engaging learning experiences for these students, contributing to the democratic potential of the community college itself.
It is an opportune time to bring DH to the CC. Access to technology, while by no means uniform across all CC students, is more reliable than it was even five years ago—if not in students’ homes then on CC campuses. But to be successful, DH at the CC needs significant translation and a customized educational approach. There are many books on DH topics and marvelous introductory course outlines, available online, on which to build. But the real work is pedagogical: creating curricular scaffolding that prepares students at an introductory level for possible future specialization while also being meaningful to all students with varied goals and preparations. Community college digital humanists will need to contextualize and make accessible the lofty complexity of text mining and data visualizations, for example. Such scaffolding is no easy feat, especially working on the margins of DH conversations. But since they are the ones who know the teaching and learning context, community college faculty are best equipped to do this work.3 Once established across institutions, this pedagogical translation will add a layer to the evolving DH field and may redraw the boundaries of what counts as digital humanities.
The idea that pedagogy might determine the boundaries of a discipline may seem backward in an academy that sees teaching more as a necessary condition for continuing research. But the creation of new knowledge that can occur at all levels of DH practice is one of its signature features, part of its democratic potential. I remember reading Stephen Brier’s comment in Debates in the Digital Humanities that pedagogy is the “ugly stepchild of universities” (Waltzer, 336). I couldn’t help but bristle at the statement, both for what it said and what it left out. If pedagogy is the “ugly stepchild of universities,” however, it is the beloved, intentional, and evolving child of community colleges. And if DH changes as a result of CC faculty and student engagement with it, it will be a sign of its vitality as a field. In some ways, the potential openness of DH distinguishes it from “old school” humanities approaches and aligns features of DH practice to the creation of art; such a condition should be embraced.
But for DH at the CC to take hold and be successful, it needs to take account of the needs of CC students. Given the open-access mission of community colleges, several questions arise. Since most CC students take few humanities courses, how do we ensure that their first encounters with DH are valuable to them? How will we teach all of our students—with their different preparations, goals, and futures—in the same class? How can we successfully incorporate students’ profiles into our assignment design so that no one is excluded?
Because of the differential preparation of students in open-access institutions, it might be tempting to introduce students to DH by teaching them about all the wonderful things that “real” DH scholars are doing. I have also heard it suggested that CC students could learn about DH by participating in crowdsourced labor, becoming part of something larger by completing microtasks for university centers and DH hubs nearby. But rather than inviting students into a democratic place of knowledge creation, such approaches risk reinscribing students into their place in a hierarchy that is all too familiar.
Inviting Community College Students to Play the “Whole Game” of DH
To avoid the pedagogical trap of either just teaching CC students “about” DH from a distance or engaging them in a subordinate role in support of “real” DH projects, I have redesigned my literature and writing classes using two principles. First, I have been guided by what David Perkins calls a “whole game” approach. In his book, Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education, Perkins outlines seven steps in a “teach for understanding” framework. Perkins uses the metaphor of learning baseball in Little League to illustrate the importance of teaching concepts and skills in a holistic way, one that clues students in to the stakes and meaning of their studies. As with Little Leaguers, the most meaningful learning involves “playing the whole game.” Perkins criticizes what he calls “elementitis,” or a pedagogy that focuses on elements of tasks in advance of student understanding of the tasks’ role in the larger picture (Perkins, Making Learning Whole, 16). His principles are paraphrased here with a brief sketch of how to use them in a DH context.
Play the Whole Game: Students focus on “junior versions” of DH projects that they learn holistically rather than repeating low-level skills or only learning about the real game of DH (Perkins, Making Learning Whole, 8). Play Out of Town: A key concern of educators is knowledge transfer across contexts. Transfer happens best in the context of integrative learning. Understanding is developed across disciplinary boundaries and likely to be retained across contexts. Because DH is collaborative and cross-disciplinary, engaging multiple knowledges at once, it is more likely to create knowledge transfer (Perkins, Making Learning Whole, 9).
Make the Game Worth Playing: Conceptual knowledge that is applicable to life beyond the classroom supports curiosity and helps students cope with ambiguity (Perkins, Making Learning Whole, 10). Students are immersed in a digital world. DH can help them understand it.
Work on the Hard Parts: Deliberate practice of basic skills in the context of the big picture familiarizes students with the unique forms and products of a discipline (Perkins, Making Learning Whole, 11). Multiple opportunities for using digital tools to solve puzzles and answer questions supports information fluencies across disciplines.
Play the Hidden Game: Methods are often the “hidden game” of learning, and teaching the “underlying game” draws learners into the game of inquiry, creating opportunities for layered aspects of learning to emerge (Perkins, Making Learning Whole, 12). Foregrounding methods such as distant reading reveals elements invisible to the “naked” interpretive eye and, in my experience, leads to a more confident close reading of results found at a distance.
Learn from the Team: This principle leverages the social, collaborative aspects of project-based learning and DH is a natural fit (Perkins, Making Learning Whole, 13).
Learn the Game of Learning: Allowing learners to take control of their learning helps them to clarify disciplinary purposes: Why does a discipline do what it does? What are its affordances and constraints? Working across disciplines on DH projects, students develop metacognitive understanding of how they know what they know in part because of the way DH requires such purposeful use of tools to support inquiry.
So how can a “whole game” approach make DH accessible to community college students? As in Little League baseball, a key feature of Perkins’s “whole game” philosophy is that “everybody plays.” Getting “everybody” in a community college classroom to confidently approach unfamiliar digital work is a challenge. But as educational leader Kay McKlenney has often remarked, “students don’t do optional,” and so requiring engagement while keeping stakes low is essential, as I learned early on. When I was first learning about DH myself, I was tentative about teaching new tools and feared students’ diffidence and withdrawal. So I offered nondigital options to students uncomfortable with technology. But I realized that this unintentionally telegraphed my lack of confidence in them to learn something new. I learned from this mistake and now require that all students complete the digital components of my courses.
But if we are going to require performances of new understandings in community colleges, we need to support students as they engage in unfamiliar terrain. I provide this support both physically, by scheduling and giving credit for lab time as part of a regular course, and also motivationally, by insisting on a classroom climate of, borrowing from Carl Rogers, “unconditional positive regard.” There are no stupid mistakes and everyone treats novices with respect and encouragement. Once students’ fears of failure and humiliation are eased, they become intrepid explorers and take themselves seriously as researchers.
A capstone assignment in my American Literature course provides a good example. I have adapted Bridget Marshall’s primary source document assignment each term for three years, and it is by far one of the most rewarding and affirming assignments that students do in my class (Using Primary Sources in the Classroom). Using the last four lab hours of the term to provide support and guidance, I ask students to find and link a primary source document, its history and context, to one or more of the texts we have read in our class. Rather than a final exam, students create slides and do “lightning round” presentations of their research and post a reflective synthesis essay in our online forum. The final exam is a celebration. Students share what they find like rare jewels, often to bursts of admiration and applause. Sometimes their findings are simply a manuscript of a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, familiar to many scholars but marvelous to students. But just as often, students find hidden treasures that change the way they think about history.
Such was one student’s experience when she discovered Harvard University’s archives of Louise Marion Bosworth, an American researcher at the Educational and Industrial Union who studied women’s working and living conditions in the early twentieth century. This student reflected on the early social science tropes in the document and connected Bosworth’s work to Abraham Cahan’s short story “A Sweatshop Romance.” Writing about the assignment, one student named Alicia articulated what you might call a “whole game” experience: “I felt all of these archives really corresponded to subjects we studied in class. We always see typed documents within textbooks, but never the original. I thought it made it much more meaningful. It gave me a deeper desire to connect with the writer” (Alicia).
Perkins’s second principle, “make the game worth playing,” emphasizes the importance of connecting classroom learning to life outside college and to the importance of generative topics that teach for conceptual knowledge and understanding. The role that big data play in the field of DH has been transformative. Indeed, distant reading of patterns and data visualization of books may be a new “threshold concept” in the twenty-first-century humanities the way that “close reading” was in the twentieth century.4 Ray Land and others explain the importance of threshold concepts for student progression in a discipline:
A threshold concept represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something. . . . As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view, and the student can move on. (Land et al., “Implications for Course Design,” 53)
Many literature instructors find it difficult enough for survey students to develop competence in close reading, and so adding this layer may seem counterproductive. But I have found that when students take words, phrases, and ideas from our class discussions and tinker with them in Google’s Ngram viewer or Voyant Tools, they develop close reading skills about the meaning of their findings while seeing words at a distance in a transformative way.
For example, after a necessarily brief overview of Ngrams in my American Literature course, another of the students tinkered with the tool at home and developed her own terms for distant reading. “A good word cluster is a science experiment with words,” she wrote:
What I consider a “good word cluster” is where the terms interact with each other in intertwined ways. Whereas a “not so good word cluster” is where perhaps one of the terms charts high in varying degrees of usage and the other terms are practically nonexistent in comparison. (Sarah).
The tinkering ethos of digital work encourages students like Sarah to take control of their learning and to develop metacognitive awareness of the procedural and content knowledge required to solve problems.5 Sarah is unintimidated by the tool and free to develop her own vocabulary for her discoveries. Recently, Perkins has commented on the need for creating not experts with niche expertise but rather “expert amateurs” who are able to know enough about learning something new that they can continue to learn new skills and adapt themselves to a changing world (Perkins, Future Wise, 24). As Sarah’s work illustrates, DH at the CC can develop this critical twenty-first-century skill of “expert amateurism”—that is, knowing how to learn about something.
Assignment Design and the Community College Student Profile
The community college student profile has consequences for the learning environment, and for DH to successfully take hold at open-access institutions, it must be responsive to the conditions of students’ lives. For example, community college students are more likely than their four-year counterparts to be working class or economically disadvantaged and so are constrained in their commitments to college by the complexity of their lives. They are more often first-generation college students and more ethnically diverse and do not inherit the privileges, sense of entitlement, and habits of mind provided by white, educated, middle-class origins. They also enter college later in life or return multiple times as adult learners, bringing diverse prior learning that can challenge assignments designed for a uniform entry point. In concert with a whole game approach, then, DH at community colleges must explicitly address relevant features of the community college student profile in course redesigns.
For example, time management in a community college culture can present a significant obstacle to working-class and first-generation college students. Of course, time is a limited resource for everyone—researchers, teachers, students. However, orientation toward time is a significant cultural difference across classes. Community college students have simultaneously less discretionary time to engage in college and also a time orientation grounded in working-class values. Taking into consideration how many CC students work—and how much—when designing DH courses or activities can have a profound impact on these students’ engagement and success. Understanding working-class students’ orientation toward time can also make a big difference in the success of a project. But it means letting go of class-neutral assumptions about learning and knowledge creation. The arc of learning and the reward cycles for accomplishment of DH projects need to be geared to the realities of their lives.
I first thought about using time orientation in my course design after reading Beverly Skeggs and Helen Wood’s study of differences in working-class and middle-class reality-TV viewers. Skeggs and Wood describe working-class viewers’ orientation to time as one characterized by “precarity,” a sense that struggles in and endurance of the present are more salient than investments in and deferral for a future imaginary. Middle-class viewers are enculturated to see time in terms of future rewards; they believe in investment of time in the present with a belief in future capitalization potential. “Inheriting and living with precarity or potential,” the authors write, “are two ends of an ontological scale which influences the investments that people can make.” Skeggs and Wood explain that inheriting “potential” provides a future orientation, “enabling investments in accrual that can be maximized and owned.” For working-class viewers, “future focus is restricted by this very presentist orientation, produced from the possibilities they inhabited and the potentials they lacked as a result of social positioning” (Skeggs and Wood, 231–32).
This notion of precarity helped me to understand some of my students’ resistance to engagement in longer research projects. Students comprehend, value, organize, and invest time in the present in a manner directly related to their ontological sense of a future. In a higher-education context, middle-class college students’ orientation to future accrual allows them to take unpaid internships with the expectation that this investment will eventually pay off. But for community college students, whose lives are dominated by a sense of material instability, investing time in some future-oriented reward often seems like folly. Students may take a class one term when things are going well, with every intention of completing a degree. But then the babysitter gets sick and they have to stay home from school to take care of their child, or they lose their job and their new one conflicts with their college schedules. Such moments of reversal may never even be fully known to us; most CC faculty have many experiences of wonderful “disappearing” students who leave without explanation. Perhaps a present-centered time orientation combined with a relative scarcity of discretionary time (what more privileged students might label “study time”) are cultural and material differences that DH pedagogies can anticipate and address.
How can we embed such an orientation into DH assignments? Creating units of meaning for DH at the CC that accrue value in situ can acknowledge the present-orientation of community college students. In one freshman writing class I teach, for example, students perform tasks in two contexts that take advantage of the simplicity of digital task performance while also engaging students in what Alan Liu might call a “cultural critical digital humanities.” So-called “microtasks” are a signature assignment in digital humanities work, and assigning microtasks is appealing because of low barriers to entry. But when I assign our students such tasks, I do so in a “whole game” context. The first set of tasks introduces students to a key sequence of steps in digital archive projects—collaborative data tagging and proofreading for precision. For the past couple of years, the New York Public Library (NYPL) has been recruiting crowdsourced labor for its “What’s On the Menu?” project. I have contributed my own labor to the project and have delighted as I’ve done so, marveling at the price of broiled grapefruit at the Waldorf Astoria in 1917 or the cost of a compote on a cruise ship in the 1920s. When I introduced students to the NYPL site at my college, culinary arts students in particular enjoyed this work and felt part of something bigger.
But transcribing menus—even if it’s fun—is not the “whole game” of crowdsourced microtasks. At least if we think of the “underlying game” of crowdsourced labor with an understanding of what Liu calls the “great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporate and global flows of information and capital” (Liu, 491). Lest students think that all crowdsourced labor is equitable and valuable, I show a video lecture by Trebor Sholz, “Digital Labor: New Opportunities, Old Inequalities.” We also watch a recruiting video by the crowdsourced sentiment-analysis company CrowdFlower, whose tag line, “One billion tasks, five million contributors,” gives a glimpse into the scale of microtasking beyond the academy.6 Students then do a new kind of field work; they sign up with Amazon Mechanical Turk7 and compare the jobs they are offered there to their entries at the New York Public Library. Based on their observations, they write a “policy paper” on what global digital labor should look like. In online forums, they reflect on how atomized labor can be as wholesome as a barn-raising for communities like the NYPL patrons or, following Sholz, how it can be alienating and destructive when it dismantles labor rights. This whole assignment can take two weeks to complete, and a freshman writing student can complete it with minimal technical preparation. While not dismissing the power of the crowd, it invites students into the “hidden game” of digital labor—its structure, its constraints, its impacts and effects as well as its conveniences and affordances.
And of course, like universal design in other contexts, this holistic engagement and “whole game” pedagogy for DH at the CC benefits all students and not only those with a “precarious” time orientation and working-class pressures-of-the-now. And precarity itself can be converted into potential when students are invited to examine the material conditions of their lives and the way the “digital turn” affects their future as global citizens. Such assignments leverage the democratic promise of digital humanities and simultaneously reveal threats to democracy posed by the digital turn.
Another “whole game” project I have developed similarly acknowledges the time orientation that constrains community college students’ engagement with DH projects. This assignment sequence, which takes three weeks to complete, raises students’ consciousness of the role that algorithms and big data play in their lives. It “makes the game worth playing” by helping students explore and understand the forces at work behind the interfaces on their touch screens. Students explore search engine optimization and examine the “relevance of algorithms” and “nudge theory” in their lives (Gillespie; Eggers). First, they learn about Eli Pariser’s concept of “filter bubbles.”8 We live, explains Pariser, in personalized informational ecosystems—“bubbles”—in which ideologically challenging or contrary information is filtered out and reinforcing information is pushed to the center. Filter bubbles are why we see the ads we do on Google and are nudged to read similar books on Amazon, and why our Facebook feed feels so comfortingly familiar. Following Pariser, I assign field work in which students compare their search engine results with those of friends and partners and post screen captures in our course online forums. Even students who are fluent users of the Internet are often surprised to discover the extensiveness of filter bubbles organizing their digital experiences.
To deepen their understanding of the phenomenon and help them “learn the game of learning,” I share some new rhetorical concepts to describe the algorithms beneath the bubbles. I introduce Collin Brooke’s new media rhetorical concepts of “persistence” (i.e., how the canon of “memory” plays in new media) and “perspective” (i.e., the new media ecology of “style”) (Brooke, 55–58). One student, originally from Russia with a sister who still lives there, compared her search results to those of her sister:
My sister got the ad promoting a vacation in Greece (she has been searching for Greece vacations for a month now), and the ad was in Russian. Yahoo knows exactly where she is located and what she has been searching for. In this way Yahoo is using “perspective” to customize her results. We tried YouTube next. When I open the home page, I got recommendations for different yoga music (that was the last thing I listened to on YouTube). Unfortunately, I forgot to do the screen shot and today the results were not the same. However, my sister’s search was different from mine. YouTube automatically was redirected to YouTube in Russian, although we typed the same web address, and she received recommendations on videos in Russian, funny animal videos, and so on. I found out that YouTube and Yahoo “remember” your search results and when you think you forgot about the product you have been searching for, they will remind you. It is more “persistent” than I am.9
This activity culminates in an essay that explores “choice architecture” such as filter bubbles in computer interfaces. Students come away with a raised consciousness about searching as well as a new language to discuss computer interface experiences—in this class and beyond.
Everybody Plays, Everyone Belongs: The Community College DH Classroom Climate
A present-time orientation is just one relevant characteristic of the SES profile of the “typical” community college student—and it may not be true of all working-class students or all community college students. But community college faculty can observe other characteristics in our students and develop “whole game” digital projects for our humanities classes that anticipate and embrace these characteristics in their design. For example, a fragile sense of belonging in the academy is a pervasive feature of the lived experience of community college students—returning adults, first-generation students, returning veterans, and students of color. In their study of the role of race in subjective experiences of “fit” in higher educational settings, for example, Gregory M. Walton and Geoffrey L. Cohen remark on the importance of sensitivity to students’ perception of belonging:
Inequality, as we know, can take the form of disparities in objective treatment and resources. But it can also take the form of disparities in subjective construal. When such disparities persist, social-psychological intervention can help people to resolve pressing subjective questions that if left unresolved would undermine their comfort in mainstream institutions and their prospects for success. (Walton and Cohen, 94)
Walton and Cohen discuss the way that even one “bad day” at school disproportionately undermines minority students’ and women’s sense of belonging in college. In developing “cutting edge” DH assignments for community college students, we need to be sensitive to this fragile sense of belonging and design assignments that advance disciplinary understanding without catapulting underprepared students into self-doubt.
Sensitive pedagogical interventions can ensure that a “bad day” at school doesn’t lead to despair and disappearance from our classrooms. After a whole term of teaching my version of DH at the CC in a Women Writer’s class, for example, I asked Wanita, one of my older returning adult students, her advice on how to teach DH at community colleges. She remarked wryly, “Make it Gramma-proof.” She had struggled with the digital components of the class, including tracking her passwords in various online software programs, and her presence in the class was instrumental in teaching me how to avoid assumptions about students’ preparedness to take on digital assignments. By the end of term, though, Wanita boldly presented a digital story about funeral homes and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home that won over the entire class of students decades her junior. Her sense of belonging as a “Gramma” was reinforced by an intentionally positive class climate in which no mistake is a bad mistake.
Adult Learners and Prior Learning as a Bridge to the Digital
And indeed age is another key feature of the profile of community college learners: the average age of community college students is twenty-nine, and two-thirds attend part-time (American Association of Community Colleges, “Students at Community Colleges”). How can DH pedagogy embrace adult learners, many of whom feel technologically ill-prepared? Engaging prior learning is a standard step in the teaching and learning process. For younger, tech-savvy students, engaging prior learning experiences on Twitter or Eye-Em might be the best path to DH at the CC. But for many returning students, it is important to validate their prior learning in other contexts as a bridge to the digital.
For example, I teach another writing class centered around a term-long multimodal composition project. Students create an advocacy website for a real or imagined cause to which they are committed. Components include designing a logo, creating a social media marketing plan for a fundraising event, and writing an FAQ page to post on their site. This assignment draws on students’ prior learning in different ways. One of my returning adult students, a baker by trade, called her cause “Foster Cakes: Free Birthday Cake for Every Foster Child.” She told me that before returning to school, she had always wanted to do something like this. Although she struggled with some of the technical aspects of the course, she drew on her prior learning as a baker and created a standout logo: a cupcake, which she cut out using her daughter’s construction paper, taped onto a coffee cup, photographed, and, with the help of some tech-savvy fellow students, uploaded onto her site (Fritts). Making certain that all students’ prior learning “counts” in designing digital projects may seem obvious, but while we innovate and work in new paradigms we can remind all community college students of the value of the wisdom and knowledge each one of them brings to our classrooms.
Strategizing for a Future DH at the CC
If we really want a cultural critical—and “democratic”—digital humanities at community colleges, we need to find what is enduring and essential about DH, what it can do that traditional approaches cannot, and we need to find a way to teach it to all of our students, with their needs in mind. And as community college faculty take up DH and make it their own, they will have to figure out where DH fits—in programs, departments, and courses—and be prepared for the same kinds of obstacles their four-year-school counterparts have met.
My own engagement with digital humanities has been scholarly and pedagogical, but it has also had to be strategic, since my colleagues and administrators have not always understood what it is that distinguishes DH or makes it valuable for our students. In a community college teaching career, research, teaching, and strategy are inextricably linked. Community colleges’ ties to the communities they serve make them highly vulnerable to short budget cycles and job market predictions, and so advocating for any new program necessarily involves institutional alliances and compromise. Public intellectuals, bloggers, and the popular press have worried over the fate of humanities and liberal arts, and community colleges have not been immune to these fears. Community colleges are under pressure to streamline and reduce course offerings, not expand them, and fitting curriculum perceived as undefinable or esoteric into fast-track pathways intended to lead to jobs could be a hard sell (Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins).
Introducing DH into community colleges will involve leveraging the strengths and priorities of each institution. For example, some colleges may wish to try infusing DH assignments and modules across courses rather than introducing entirely new DH courses that fit uneasily with streamlined degree programs. Distant reading assignments, for example, could be introduced in history, literature, and sociology courses in addition to freshman composition courses. For colleges that have strong service learning programs, archival work with local cultural institutions may be a path to effective DH development. Alternatively, faculty cohorts across disciplines may be able to develop learning communities that offer repeated engagements with a single resource from multiple disciplinary perspectives. As faculty and administrators begin to recognize the relevance of DH for students’ lives, they may begin to develop general education learning outcomes that build DH skills over time and across degree programs. Such strategies will take collaborative work among faculty and administrators who may be unused to working together. But such collaboration can have positive effects on institutional culture and even put community colleges in a better position to respond to external pressures.
There is a precedent for this kind of collaboration strategy. Over the past decades, the scholarship and theories of social justice and equity have migrated into community college students’ paths through careful curricular translation and embedding across disciplines. Successfully guiding underprepared students through the complexities of this work was a formidable pedagogical enterprise, often uneven across disciplines and institutions. But its success can be witnessed in mission and value statements, curriculum guides, and courses that reflect the best insights distilled from those fields. Similarly, practitioners of DH at community colleges can ensure a future of digitally fluent students by working together to meet CC students where they are and giving them twenty-first-century tools for engaging in the humanities. For some CC students, DH will be a game changer, connecting their learning to their lives in ways they hadn’t imagined.
In July 2015, I completed an inspiring week as project director for an NEH Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities Summer Institute for community college digital humanists. The twenty-nine CC participants who attended were led by a faculty comprised of prominent university DH practitioners collaborating with CC innovators. By the end of the week together, everyone could feel that the community college’s moment in digital humanities, however late in arriving, is now.
1. As part of an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant Project, I designed and implemented a National Survey of Digital Humanities at Community Colleges that sought to gather data. This data is available on my Doing DH at the CC blog, https://blogs.lanecc.edu/dhatthecc/.
2. Vincent Tinto and Brian Pusser refer to academic and social integration as “involvement” or “engagement.” See “Moving from Theory to Action.” See also Bloom and Sommo, “Building Learning Communities.”
3. In proposing the 2015 NEH Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities Summer Institute for community college faculty, my intention was precisely to develop a community of practice in DH at the CC. See the DH at the CC Commons at https://dhatthecc.lanecc.edu/.
4. For a discussion of the role that “threshold concepts” play in disciplinary thinking, see Meyer and Land, “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge.”
5. In his keynote address to the Two Year College Association in 2013, Jentery Sayers discussed the relevance of makerspaces, transduction literacy, and procedural knowledge for humanities and writing centers at community colleges. See Sayers, “Why Do Makerspaces Matter for the Humanities? For Writing Centers?”
9. Anonymous student forum post. Author’s Spring 2014 Writing 122 Course, Lane Community College. Shared with permission.
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